ELLA BERTHOUD, BIBLIOTHERAPIST, ON THE WONDERS OF CHILDREN’S BOOKS
Ella Berthoud learnt to read in the back of a Wolsey 1300 while travelling from Iran to Finland, aged 5. She’s never looked back, and has spent her adult life sharing her love of reading with others by working as a bibliotherapist at The School of Life, where she set up the bibliotherapy service with her co-writer, Susan Elderkin. Together they wrote The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies and The Story Cure: How to Keep Kids Happy, Healthy and Wise.
I have the best job in the world – I match up books to people. As a bibliotherapist, I see hundreds of clients a year. They bring me their life stories, tell me their troubles and triumphs; then I give them a handful of books that will help them to see their lives from a different angle, give them a boost, a new perspective, or a gentle nudge in the right direction. I primarily recommend novels, as I believe that fiction is a brilliant tool for reflection, and for changing your life from within. Sometimes it’s literary non-fiction; quite frequently I suggest children’s books too.
I recommend children’s books to adults (as well as children) because I think grownups can gain as much from reading them as children can. As children, the books you read can be vital in forming your character, your moral backbone and your attitudes to other people. They teach children empathy, the importance of standing up for what you believe in, the courage to speak up when others won’t, and how to see the world from many different points of view. They also take you to strange new lands where magic can happen – where you can ride on the back of a dragon, have a daemon for a soul-mate -or win the golden ticket to that chocolate factory.
Often children’s books are full of things their readers want to do but are too scared or sensible – like running away from home. And sometimes they’re things they wouldn’t want to happen to them at all, but they are very curious to know what it’d be like if they did – like being orphaned, or stranded on a desert island, or raised by a badger, or tragically turned into a rock. The best children’s books have a way of confronting big issues and big emotions with fearless delight, their instinct to thrill being paramount, but their desire to reassure being equally strong. There are of course children’s books which thrill more than they reassure, but most are written with a message of hope and positivity that adults find just as therapeutic as children can. Who can resist the optimistic ending of The Secret Garden, by Francis Hodgson Burnett? Who can be left uncomforted by the wonderful madness of Tove Janson in the fabulous Comet in Moominland?
There are hundreds of wonderful children’s books that Susan Elderkin and I discovered in the process of writing The Story Cure, as well as the many that we had already read as children ourselves. In my childhood, I was lucky enough to have a father who read to me and my brothers around the campfire in the deserts of Iran and Australia, from Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and She by H. Rider Haggard, as well as the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle. A love of the jungle and exploration was born, and this love has taken me on many an adventure – of not just the literary type. But the new books I discovered for children and young adults were equally powerful, and I now know just how many superb stories for all ages are available, and which I hope readers of all ages will continue to devour. We wrote The Story Cure as a way to make sense of the vast range of reading that’s out there, to bring the right readers to the right books at the right time in their lives. There are picture books, chapter books and young adult books, each matched up with an ailment that a toddler, child or young adult might experience. Some ailments are relevant to all ages, some are unique to their age group. We give guidance to the reading ages, but we also feel strongly that the best children’s books should be read by people of all ages. Reconnect with your childhood self, and revisit children’s books by yourself, or with a handy small person of comparatively few years…
By Lois Lowry
An award-winning dystopian book that can be read by adults and children alike. It provides any reader with a stimulating and engaging story line about a future world that seems perfect, but happens to be lacking in emotional depth.
My Side of the Mountain
By Jean Craighead George
This tale is one that celebrates the trait of individualism, yet also shows the human need for companionship. We learn through the protagonist the importance of independence, courage and relationships (whether they be with humans or animals!)
A Wrinkle in Time
By Madeleine de L’Engle
This sci-fi cult classic serves to engage with all ages. An adventurous tale of children looking for their long-lost father allows for more sophisticated themes to emerge out of this book.
A High Wind in Jamaica
By Richard Hughes
A thrilling story from Hughes about a set of children captured by pirates after they were sent away by their parents. This wild and dangerous tale has deep subtexts surrounding the unknowable nature of children.